At COMPASS, we sometimes work with an individual scientist in a variety of contexts and over several years. As they engage with journalists, policymakers, and others outside their research community, we often hear how their thoughts around sharing their science continue to evolve. We recently caught up with one such scientist – Dr. Francis Chan of Oregon State University – after he got back from a trip to our DC office earlier this month to meet with policymakers about ocean acidification. Here are some of the things he has picked up over the course of his communication and engagement experiences that we’re excited to share with you!
Pushback isn’t always a bad thing
“In the moment, it seemed like the conversations in DC for this last trip were a little challenging–I was noticing some pushback from staffers and it felt like it wasn’t going well. But after the fact, when Chad [English] said ‘That went really well,’ I realized that the staffers were actually engaged, and were trying to come up with a way to insert themselves into the problem. That was an eye-opener for me.”
Information means more coming straight from the source
“I’ve had really positive experiences where people who I’m talking to are really excited that someone, who is actually doing this, is taking the time to talk to them about it. I’ve done Rotary lunches, public talks at visitor centers on the coast, and it’s so much easier to reach people when we communicate these issues directly as scientists. We don’t have to have the baggage that can come with media stories. I’m rewarded because COMPASS gives me those opportunities, and I get the sense that people are taking what I’m saying at face value, not in a politicized framework.”
Communication can change the course of a conversation
“Early on when we started working on coastal hypoxia, there was enough public interest and media coverage that [former] Congresswoman Darlene Hooley organized a briefing in Oregon. Right around the same time, scientists were quoted in the local papers, and there was really big pushback on what they thought we were saying. No one wants to hear ‘The ocean’s dead’ and of course they’re thinking ‘What are you talking about, there’s salmon, there’s tuna.’ I remember getting into the car to head to the briefing, feeling sick to my stomach, and thinking ‘I’ll never do outreach again! I’m just going to do my science from now on.’ But at the meeting, when I gave them the science, the ‘here’s what we know as of yesterday,’ the people understood the implications of what I was talking about, and the whole tone of the room changed. People who were critical of what we’d said in the media became partners in the discussion. I realized then that the right science, when communicated correctly, can get people into a better decision-making framework.”
Think about what your audience needs from you
“I was slated to give a plenary at a conference for ocean acidification researchers, maybe 15 minutes, and was charged with talking about uncertainty in ocean acidification science and communication. It was a hard setting because the audience was leaders in the field, and my natural happy place would have been a very technical type of talk—here’s my research, here’s why it’s important, here’s why it’s cool.
I was going to give that talk, but literally the night before in the hotel room, I threw it out the window and asked myself ‘What should this audience be thinking about? That we have a paralyzing amount of uncertainty ahead, or that not all uncertainties are created equal and we can think strategically as a community to prioritize uncertainties and efforts.’ And I came up with a different talk altogether, that was surprisingly data-free for a science talk, and in the end I was really happy with it. Then I saw all these leaders in the field in the audience and had second thoughts – oh my god, what have I done! But in the end, I felt like I did the right thing. I thought it was more important to stimulate thought and conversation, which I don’t think a data-heavy talk would have done.”
Communicating your science is a return on an investment
“When I think about what my backyard oceans will look like in 20, 30, 40 years, that’s sobering, and I feel like we have an urgent need for everyone making decisions to understand the scope and pace of what we’re facing. We have a responsibility to give that important set of knowledge to others, and we can’t blame them for making the wrong decisions if they don’t have the right information. It’s an unbelievable privilege to be a scientist – we get to do what we find interesting, but we need to remember who pays for us to do that – to a large extent, it’s the public.”
Dr. Francis Chan is an assistant professor senior research in the Department of Integrative Biology at Oregon State University. His work focuses on coastal oceans and the relationships between biogeochemistry and ecological patterns and processes, including causes and impacts of nearshore low oxygen zones and the ecological consequences of increasing ocean carbon levels.